I have a naughty dog. His name is Skipper and no, he is not a puppy. He is also not “going through a phase” as I told myself (and my family) for way too long. He is simply naughty by nature and living his truth.
Let me clearly state here that Skipper is not a bad dog. He loves his family fiercely and displays an inspiring zest for life. If I were stuck down a well he would absolutely run to get a rope. Then he would probably stand 10 feet from the top of the well and stare at me while I called his name over and over and over again. Then he’d zip around in circles near the well to try to get me to chase him and play tug-of-war. Yes, he has a mind of his own, loads of energy, and no particular desire to please humans before himself— but he’s not bad.
My dog’s rejection of the “Very Good Boy” lifestyle has caused me more than a bit of embarrassment at both personal and professional gatherings. As a veterinarian, I have felt the eyes of other doctors on me at the staff picnic while their dogs sat attentively at their feet and mine ran away with a crying child’s Nerf gun. My extended family members alternate between reveling in how much more trustworthy their pets are than mine (it’s always hilarious, the veterinarian with the ill-behaved pooch) and helpfully offering suggestions about how I might get Skipper to fall in line. My mother frequently suggests that I take him to see her vet, because, and I quote, “She’s really good.”
Over the years, I have spent countless hours working with this dog. On my podcast, where I interview renowned veterinary specialists, you better believe I’ve asked a few behaviorists about “hypothetical” problems for a “theoretical” mutt. I once even broke down and sent him to live-away training camp. My wife called it “doggie reform school,” and my kids cried when he left. I have not shied away from doing the work to nurture a well-behaved dog. That’s just not what Skipper is.
I’m not sharing all this because I want to defend my dog (or myself), not really. I’m sharing this because I know there are other naughty dogs out there, and the holiday season is coming, bringing with it a whole extra set of challenges for dogs who haven’t earned a good-as-gold medal. If your naughty dog has seen a few holidays already, you’ve likely used some of the same excuses I have: “He’s just really excited,” and “There are just so many interesting things to see and smell,” and “Well, kids’ toys do look a lot like dog toys.”
I feel you. And fortunately, from my own experiences with Skipper and from counseling an unending stream of pet owners in similar situations, I can offer some tried-and-true advice. It’s a five-step program for owners of naughty dogs that will help make the holidays as enjoyable as possible. Here goes:
Step 1: Acceptance
Every self-help program begins with this, and for good reason. Start by accepting that your furry friend operates according to his own agenda, not yours, and go from there. You’ll have far more success and peace than if you try to convince him to behave in a way he has shown you he has no interest in doing. Love your dog for who he is… and proceed to step 2.
Step 2: Planning
Now that you have accepted that your dog is not going to change who he is for the holidays, it’s time to make a plan. The biggest mistake naughty dog owners make is simply releasing their dog into holiday chaos with a vague idea that everyone will work together to keep him out of trouble. Please know this never works. Whether it’s just your family around the table at home or you’re safely gathering with a pod of friends or extended family, consider having an assigned person “on duty” at any given time to oversee your dog. Take a look at the calendar in advance, whether you’re dealing with one festive day or a whole week of revelry, and block out the days in terms of what your dog will be doing and when. If you’re taking your dog with you to someone else’s home, plan to bring his crate. You might even talk to your veterinarian in advance about calming supplements or medications.
Step 3: Exercise
A tired dog is a better dog. You cannot control what your sister does with her kids, what your brother drops on the floor, or what ideas spontaneously pop into your dog’s brain. You can, however, do everything in your power to make sure your dog is too exhausted to achieve Loki-level mischief.
Scheduling dog park visits, leashed walks with alternating family members throughout the day, supervised playtime in the yard, and/or dog daycare stays can make an enormous difference to stress and energy levels. Don’t skip this investment in your sanity and your dog’s happiness.
Step 4: Problem Avoidance
I once had a pet owner tell me her dog completely loses his mind whenever they walk past the downtown holiday ice-skating rink. She asked me what she could do. I told her, “Don’t walk past the ice-skating rink.”
Sometimes the easiest way to help your dog avoid trouble is simply not to put him in situations where trouble will arise. In the case of holiday gatherings, this may mean considering a boarding or pet sitting service. If you are going to be stressed by your dog getting into things, and he’s going to be stressed by being locked in a back room or stuck in his crate, then maybe the best thing for everyone is for him to be safely somewhere else. Depending on your dog’s temperament, he may love staying at a kennel where he’ll play with other dogs all day or with a pet sitter who has no plans other than playing and relaxing with him.
Step 5: Rejection of Guilt
Guilt is an ingredient baked right into the holiday bread for many of us. It’s easy to feel guilty because you can’t please everyone all the time. You might feel bad that your dog is sitting in his crate while you’re cutting the turkey, because he’s staying at the kennel while you’re out enjoying fall foliage, or because you and your dog are at the park throwing a ball instead of watching the family’s favorite holiday movie on TV. The key to a great holiday is thinking ahead and looking at the big picture. Make decisions that honor the greater good for you, your pet, and the rest of your family. Then consider all that forethought a wonderful holiday gift for your dog — and yourself.
Good luck, and happy holidays!
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the DrAndyRoark.com editorial team.